Are community foundations relevant when we talk about climate?


Sorin Cebotari


Why should community foundations focus on environmental protection and climate change? The answer is rather simple and straightforward – because there is no way around it. While we talk about climate change at the global level, it is directly affecting our local communities and our well-being.

Unfortunately, the subject of environmental protection and climate change can no longer be disentangled from all the other spheres of our life – economic development, social protection, education, access to services, etc. With a contextualised understanding of local needs and challenges, community foundations can ensure an efficient translation of global efforts to the local context, and of local voices at a global level.

While through their structure community foundations are mostly inward-looking local actors, they have a large, yet untapped, potential to contribute to the environmental protection and climate change agenda. There are at least three distinct ways in which community foundations can do that:

  1. By setting up financing programs for local actors that would implement climate/environmental-related projects.
  2. By mediating knowledge transfer to and from the local community.
  3. By engaging directly in implementing climate/environmental-related projects.

Community foundations: setting up a local environmental agenda through financing and trust

There are at least two different impact lines through which community foundations could contribute to an increased engagement of local communities with environmental topics

  1. convincing resourceful actors on the need to set up funding mechanisms for environmental-related projects and
  2. offering grants for environmental-related projects by organising calls for local community actors.

The above options do not come without challenges. CFs might also face difficulties, such as,

  • Pre-set interests of funding actors for other (relevant) subjects (e.g., social inclusion, bridging the educational gap).
  • Lack of interest among local actors that could be involved in environmental or climate-related actions.
  • Difficulties to operationalize the global framework covering climate change to the local context,
  • Lack of ‘in-house’ capacity – administrative and technical – to set up financing frameworks for environmental and climate projects.

Nevertheless, through their institutional place and good stakeholder networking, community foundations can overcome these challenges by relying on their social capital.

Situations will most definitely differ from one foundation to another and especially from one region to another. We can see examples of community foundations from Canada or the U.S. that are already taking environmental and climate challenges seriously.

Furthermore, in those communities where the issues of environmental protection, climate change or sustainable energy acquired an important weight, we can expect community foundations to also be active on these topics. However, there is still a large discrepancy between different regions, thus we have cases where the debate regarding climate change and environmental protection is still marginal. It is particularly in such communities where CFs can demonstrate their leadership. 

Community foundations: channel for knowledge transition.

While there are global knowledge frameworks – such as the SDGs for example – that expand on challenges and needed actions to support just and sustainable transition, these are often less known or engaged with at the local level.

Community foundations gather their key areas of focus from their local communities and thus are directly engaged in solving local problems. In itself, that approach can be impactful as it brings a contextualised understanding of what environmental protection or climate change means to the local community. However, the general capacity of local communities on environmental topics is rather limited and connecting to global frameworks can bring significant added value. Here community foundations are well-positioned to bridge the expertise gathered in the context of global agendas, with the many communities in the areas they serve.  

Engaging at the strategic level with global frameworks, such as the SDGs, would allow community foundations to better map, structure and tackle local challenges since they can rely on a large quantity of knowledge existent at the regional and international levels. Such an approach would also position community foundations as key stakeholders for building partnerships for climate and environmental protection. Community foundations can have a very important role to play in ensuring that all the relevant arguments, action plans and strategies developed at the regional/national levels are also reflected in local community action.

In addition, community foundations could become relevant in transiting contextualised knowledge and evidence from the local communities to the regional and international decision-makers. By choosing to focus on a specific SDG or working on a locally relevant problem, community foundations are a valuable source of primary data regarding what communities perceive and where a working initiative/framework is already in place.

Community foundations: actors that make things happen

While their position as community aggregators is central, community foundations can also play a direct role by applying and implementing projects that tackle environmental issues. This direct participation, especially in regions where there is a lack of engagement with these subjects, can yield benefits:

  • Placing environmental and climate issues on the local agenda and promoting the initial engagement with the subject. 
  • Acquiring knowledge and technical capacity for community foundations.
  • Placing community foundations as key interlocutors in addressing environmental and climate challenges.

Different contexts: similar framework

Community foundations are of ‘many kinds and colours’ reflecting global diversity and specific local contexts. In this regard, there is no general rule on what the starting point should be when conducting work on climate and environmental topics. Moreover, with some community foundations, we already have a strong commitment to supporting environmental and climate projects (be it at the local level such as those from Washington, D.C. or San Diego, or even at the regional level, as it is the case of European Community Foundation Initiative). However, in many other cases, we are only beginning to build up a stronger engagement of the local communities, and it is exactly in such contexts where CFs could prove instrumental.

Sorin Cebotari is founder of @InfoClima and a Research Fellow at the Făgăraș Research Institute.

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